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It's Levy Season

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Boundary County says Yes; will Bonner?

As January’s snow/rain/snow weather pattern moves into February, voters in the Lake Pend Oreille School district of Bonner County will be heading to the polls to cast their votes in a supplemental levy election on the 26th, just weeks after voters in Boundary County passed a $10.6 million dollar levy to improve schools in the northernmost county of the state.

    Boundary County residents have not been fans of using levies to fund projects, and this was not the first time voters were asked to build schools in the district. This year, however, in the third largest voter turnout ever, almost 64% of those votes were “yes” and Bonners Ferry passed its first-ever bond election.

    Bonner County residents passed a bond election to build new schools almost 15 years ago and followed that with a period of voting against all levies proposed. Since 1996, however, a supplemental levy has been passed every year. For 2001, District Administrator Steve Battenschlag and the Board of Trustees for District #84 are asking voters to approve a two-year, $2.2 million dollar levy to “continue the instructional program,” for students from Southside to Sandpoint and points east.     “We used to run levies because we had buckets collecting rain in the buildings and we ran levies to buy buses. We now have new roofs and all of our buses are on the 10-year depreciation schedule. Now we’re focusing on smaller class sizes, current textbooks, updated curriculum and continuing to support extra-curricular programs like the arts, academics and athletics,” Battenschlag explained. “State funding alone doesn’t pay for the lion’s share (of those programs.)”

    Kathy Osborne is the mother of three and works as an advertising director for the Ponderay Co-Op. Her husband, Dan, is a drywall contractor and part time musician, and the pair are typical voters in the area. This year, Kathy says she’ll be voting “no” on the levy.

    “There’s a lot of issues for me in this,” explained the area native. “And one of the most important is knowing what’s going on with the budget. What are they doing with the money they already have?”

    According to Battenschlag, what they’re doing is making a small amount of money go a long way toward educating students. Out of his current $23 million budget, Battenschlag says, “85 to 87% goes directly to salaries and benefits for staffing. With the remainder, we take care of every other need – everything from textbooks to electric bills to paper for the copy machines.”

    That staffing amount, however, is one that causes Osborne some misgiving. “Why do we have to spend so much money on staff?” she asks. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t pay teachers well – the value of a good teacher is incalculable. But why should they make more money than the average person here in the community? Why should district employees have better benefits than those of us paying for those benefits?”

    Battenschlag's' answer is three-fold. “One, a decent wage allows us to attract the most qualified people to do the job. It’s common knowledge that lower wages results in lower productivity. Two, wages help determine retention – we want to keep qualified people, not train them for work somewhere else. And three,” he added, “good wages are good for the community. Every month, employees of this school district deposit over $1 million into our local banks. Every dollar spent in this community is turned over, on average, seven times.”

    Osborne’s response to those arguments is simple. “Just about every one of us who moved here or who stayed here did so knowing that we were going to make less money than people in comparable positions in other places. We chose that because we wanted to live here. Why should district staff be any different?”  To that point Battenschlag says that district employees do not make what they could just miles to the west, in Washington. Part of the problem is keeping qualified people in the district when they can make so much more just over the border.

    Osborne says she would be more likely to support district levies if she felt the district itself were working to keep her informed of what’s going on with the money. “They don’t make it easy for me to get the information,” she said. “I have to go to them if I want to know what they’re spending,” she explained, “and I have to take time out of my work day to do that. And then I have to pay to receive it.” Osborne would like to see the district make detailed copies of the budget available at every local post office throughout the attendance area. “At least then I’d feel like they really wanted me to know what’s going on.”  

    That lack of knowledge ends up hurting the district when area taxpayers learn of budget items without an explanation from the district office. Osborne referenced a column in the daily paper, for instance, that questioned checks written by the school district to the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce that totaled over $56,000. When asked, the district explained those amounts were part of a grant received by the Bonner Business Education Partnership and Schools That Work, for which the school district served as the fiscal agent. Those grant monies don’t belong to the school district – by serving as a fiscal agent, the district only provides a checking account through which monies can be deposited and checks can be written. The daily paper did not provide an explanation of those expenditures at that time, and Osborne said it shouldn’t be up to the taxpayer to find out the answers. “The district wants something from us – our money,” she said. “That means they should actively come to us.”

    Battenschlag feels the district is already doing just that. He points out that budget hearings are held twice each year in public meeting, and that the district’s budget is audited by an independent auditor once every year. “We have received excellent audits,” he said, “and last year we got an A+.” Copies of the budget are available upon request to the central office, and people are asked only to pay a small fee for copying.   Additionally, if the writer of the editorial on the checks written to the Chamber wanted to inform the public, Battenschlag said, he could have asked before running his article.

    If passed, the levy will cost taxpayers with a taxable assessed value of $100,000 approximately $101 each year. Battenschlag points out that the levy will replace last year’s levy on the tax rolls, and that taxpayers will actually see a small reduction in the amount of property tax they pay for schools next year as compared to this year- the new levy is 7% less than the previous one.  The brochure developed for the levy encourages taxpayers to contact the County Assessor’s office to find out if they qualify for

any of the tax exemptions available: homeowner’s, circuit breaker, hardship, forest land or agricultural.

    Osborne says the levy hits hard on the segment of the community that’s not at the poverty level, but not wealthy, either. “I’m very careful about how I spend my money,” she explained. “Do you know how many loaves of bread I can buy with $100? That money represents two nights out with my family, or a week’s worth of groceries.”

    For Battenschlag, the levy question boils down to a very simple premise. “What kind of education do we want to provide for our students?” he asks. He adds warnings of staff reductions, limited programs and the inability to purchase supplies are not the “threats” they seem to be to some in the community.

    “Tell me what else I’m supposed to cut?” he questioned. “Here’s an example. Let’s get rid of all administration – every bit of it. Now there’s no management at all in the district, and you’re still $700,000 short of funding the district without a levy. What do you cut after that?” He grows a little angry at the suggestion the district spends too much money on management positions. “Saying there’s too much fat in the administration is an old excuse,” he stated. “Just look at me – I’m three positions that used to be funded. When I first came here, we paid for a Superintendent, a Business Manager and a Treasurer.” He says those positions used to account for $227,000 in salaries, and have now been consolidated into his one position as Chief Administrator with  a salary of $85,000. “You have to come up with something new if you want to beat me down,” he said, “because the old arguments don’t count now. Truly, to cut this (levy money) out of the budget will hurt. Then we’re no longer talking about technology, or language arts, or science programs. We’ll be talking about who still has a job next year. And that’s the wrong focus for a school district.”

    Osborne suggests the focus should change even further. “Maybe Steve’s right,” she said. “Maybe this is how much money it takes to run the school district in the way we run it. And maybe it’s time for a radical change – time to go back to the drawing board and figure out if there’s not a better way of doing things.”

    Voters will answer those issues, at least for the next school year, when they go to the polls on the 23rd.                                           



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Landon Otis

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